Thursday, April 15, 2010

Jules Verne: A Time Traveller’s Story

I haven’t been very busy at work these last few days. I recently ordered a new branching agent for my synthesis of a certain class of hyperbranched macromolecules than I’m not at liberty to disclose, along with a certain salt for assisting in double displacement of a certain functional group that is useful in a type of reaction that rhymes with “McChemistry”.

What else are azides ever used for, anyway.

The higher-ups are giving me the Japanese run-around about my order. I never got any confirmation from the ordering people that the chemicals were on their way or anything, so after a couple days I went and asked them whats up. They shifted their feet and rustled papers in a fashion that only the Nipponese can pull off for about 15 minutes while I waited. I know their tricks by now, and I know this tactic is used in order to not give bad news, or maybe to not have to explain a complicated situation to a gaijin with broken Nihongo, or both. So I just thanked them profusely and begged my leave.

Saita-san came to the rescue and headed to the ordering people to see whats what. Turns out my order had been flagged as HIGHLY suspicious, as the chemicals I thought were fairly innocuous included in their number both a potent toxin recently used in high-profile Japanese poisonings (NaN¬3) and a fairly effective analog of a certain hydrocannabinoid that I hear is popular with the kids these days (THC, the analog I ordered being 5-chlororesorcinol). Anyway I cleared it all up by saying that I wasn’t looking to poison or inflict synthetic THC highs on any unsuspecting Nipponese, so the order went through. I’m still waiting for the stuff though, and I’m getting a bit bored of aimlessly trying to memorize the kanji for the first 92 elements (transuranics are different and in some dispute, apparently. I bet the kanji for plutonium is a slightly roughed-up variation or jeu-de-mot on 長崎. Too soon? Wrong crowd?)

Anyway, to eventually make my way to the point of this post. I haven’t been very busy at work, and so I’ve gone to my favorite source of free-domain reading material (that being Project Gutenberg, by way of, my provider for legal and free Kindle books) and grabbed some classics. Mostly Poe, Conan Doyle and Verne. I loved the Holmes books I read, and it turns out the movie steals pretty much all the witty lines directly from the source, which is great. Anyway I’m on to Verne now, and I’ve discovered a terrible truth. Verne was most definitely a time traveler.

Everyone knows Jules Verne was a man ahead of his time, he wrote “20 000 Leagues Under the Sea” (To offer everyone a clarification that was never made for me in my tender youth, the title refers to the distance covered whilst under the sea, rather than the depth. I was confused when I realized 20 000 leagues would be roughly 10 times the mean diameter of the earth), and “From the Earth to the Moon” (No clarification is needed here, but its worth noting that Verne got the propulsion method wrong, he proposed a “space gun” rather than a self-propelled rocket. In truth, the space-gun would only really work as an electromagnetic rail-gun design, and would be handy in getting stuff from the Moon to the Earth, not the other way around. Stupid gravity wells). But I digress.

He also wrote a book called “Paris in the 20th Century.” This one has got to take the cake for clairvoyance.

I was going to make a “cake for clairvoyants” joke here. I don’t think you would have laughed.

This book tells the story of an artists down on his luck in the year 1960, in a world dominated by cheap entertainment for the masses and wonders of modern technology that might seem fairly familiar. Verne wrote it in 1863, and delivered it to his publisher. His thoughts:

“I was not expecting perfection — to repeat, I knew that you were attempting the impossible — but I was hoping for something better.”
And this gem:
"In this piece, there is not a single issue concerning the real future … I am surprised at you ... [it is] lacklustre and lifeless."

Verne took this criticism to heart, put the book in a safe and promptly forgot about it. It was discovered in 1989 by his great-grandson while cleaning out the family home. It was published in English in 1997.

Well, surprise surprise, it turns out that publisher guy didn’t know much about the future. Lets take a look at some of the things that Verne correctly “predicted” in this book.
* air conditioning machines
* distributed electricity
* skyscrapers
* gasoline-powered automobiles
* high-speed trains
* calculators
* The Internet (in his words: a worldwide telegraphic communications network)
* electric chairs (the kind that kill bad guys, not that move around Hawking)
* televisions
* the Louvre glass pyramid (actually “a very modern geometric monument in front of the Louvre”)
* the Eiffel tower

Yah, he predicted the Eiffel tower. I can see predicting skyscrapers (Ooooo, buildings are going to get taller. Big whoop), but the Eiffel tower in all its particulars is kinda creepily prescient.

So if we accept the obvious that Jules Verne is in fact a time traveler, we must then naturally wonder from what era he is going to have come from. The most recent prediction he made that has come true (the Louvre pyramid) was finished in 1990 or so. This suggests he is going to have come from the recent future (or just picked the late 20th century as a cut-off date arbitrarily). Of course there could be something in this book that has yet to come true that we aren’t aware of by reason of it not having happened yet. But I imagine whats most likely is that Verne is going to have been from the (fairly) distant future, since he set the book in 1960, complete with the Internet and the Pyramid that wouldn’t exist for another 30 years past that date. This implies some fuzzy and/or misplaced information about the dating of the creation of these things. Wait, but time travelers don’t suffer from lost data about the past. Hmmmm.

I guess one possibility is that Verne fucked with the future and we were supposed to have the Internet and the Pyramid in 1960.

Or he’s just a guy who made some good guesses.

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